Governor Brown’s New School Funding Program Shows Promise, but Lacks Mechanisms to Ensure Transparency and Equity

Governor Brown’s proposed 8-year initiative to increase educational funding in California for individual students recently passed, marking the advent of a total overhaul of the California public education system. The formula includes three key elements: base level funding for California’s 6.2 million k-12 students, a supplement for every child classified as high needs (English-learner, low income, foster child), and bonus funds separate from the supplement for districts with the highest concentrations of high-needs students.

Additionally, a compromise to amend the plan includes an extra $3 billion in base level funding to ensure that almost every district (particularly those lacking in significant numbers of disadvantaged students) will receive state funds to compensate for budget cuts in the 2007-2008 budget crisis. For the 40 districts that otherwise would not have gotten their cut funds restored under the new program, an “economic recovery payment” will be issued to them to ensure that they do not lose funds under the new program. In order to increase funds in these areas, supplemental funding for high-needs children will be reduced. In districts with large percentages of high-needs students, however, supplemental funding will increase.

While this plan offers promising steps towards improving the quality of education for individual students, legislators have no plans to implement a tracking system for how much money students generate for each school and how much money each school receives from its respective district.

Without a mechanism in place to ensure transparency, there is no way to know if the increased funds will actually serve their intended purposes. As Lisa Snell writes, “While Governor Brown’s plan distributes money to school districts with larger numbers of disadvantaged students, it does not do enough to ensure that the money gets to these students’ schools or to the students themselves-aside from threatening audits or sanctions if disadvantaged students fail to meet performance targets.” Because only district and not school-level reporting is mandatory, individual schools can’t be held accountable for the way they spend the increased funds.

If mandatory school-level reporting is not instituted, the status quo within the California public system will be sustained, with the increased funds being used to fortify already over-funded programs and demographics. For example, as the Editorial Board of the Sacramento Bee states, “Upper-middle-class parents will demand resources and get them. Teachers, in the collective bargaining process, will put pressure on for higher salaries and hiring of more teachers.”

In order to prevent the maintenance of these inequities, school-level reporting must be instituted. Senator Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is one of the chief proponents of instituting mandatory school-level reporting.

If school level reporting were made mandatory, individual rather than average teacher salaries would be reported, exposing inequities among schools, and schools would be held accountable for the way they spend their money due to the increased financial transparency facilitated by school-level reporting.

However, to ensure the utmost success of Brown’s program, legislators should look beyond just school-level reporting. They should institute a system of student-based budgeting in which funds follow the students to their individual schools and are weighted based on the unique needs of each student. This system ensures the increased funds will be spent as they are intended to be because individual principals control the way funds are allotted and can therefore adjust the use of funds to best suit the needs of each individual student. Also, student-based budgeting ensures total financial transparency because students are assigned specific financial allotments based on their individual needs that follow them to their schools of choice within their districts, so the amount of money and its intended uses are readily apparent based on student demographics at each school.

Brown’s measures are a step in the right direction, but without school-level reporting and student-based budgeting, their successful implementation remains questionable.